Teaching Economics in a Real Context

The following article first appeared in the INOMICS Handbook 2022.

Download the INOMICS guide

While every generation claims that its problems are the most serious and urgent in the annals of mankind, our generation certainly has a strong case: a global pandemic that has already claimed five million lives, and a world that is seemingly heading towards catastrophe, unable to keep global temperatures. from rising and thus curb climate change.

Today’s students are united by a common anxiety, an anxiety about the future – and rightly so: they are worried about getting a job, worried about what the planet will look like when they are ready to settle down and start a family, and even angry that they have nothing to do. do with climate change; it is none of their business, but placed on their knees – a negative externality, if you will – only to unravel and become their responsibility.

Students (and the public) look to economics and the economics profession for help and guidance. Probably never in recent history have we had a greater ethical obligation to educate our students in a context of hope and aspiration so that all can successfully (and sustainably) provide for themselves and others.

Based on our collective years of teaching, as well as waves of pluralism, sustainability, and economic rethinking, we offer the following suggestions for potential economics teachers and, of course, veteran teachers.

1. Align course content with current issues

We do not need to become the heralds of doom and gloom; instead, emphasize the role of education in giving students the ability to think and solve problems. And most importantly, let’s instill in students a sense of optimism and empowerment (see Boyd and Reardon 2020 for a helpful resource).

Build the course to fit the current issues of the day, and today there is no bigger issue than climate change and how we can lead a sustainable life (UN SDG 17 is a useful guide; also see Reardon et al., 2018. ). and Reardon, 2021). This will make the course more thematic and interesting for students while still covering the main topics but based on a 21st century context. And it will shed light on other pressing issues such as inequality, migration, species depletion, technological change, and even the coronavirus itself, which are all linked to climate change.

Our goal is to educate, not to preach. Not all economists think the same way, and this should be noted. But we must teach our students to express their results and thoughts clearly. The world needs graduates who can think critically, listen, communicate, respect and work with those they disagree with.

2. Teach interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration

Once the course is restructured to align with the big issues of the day, i.e. climate change and sustainability, pluralism automatically follows:

“It is absolutely impossible to discuss sustainability from one point of view. It is absolutely impossible to discuss sustainability without discussing justice, ethics, and power. And it is absolutely impossible to talk about justice and power without developing the skills of listening and dialogue. It simply cannot be done. Start teaching UN SDG 17 [with its emphasis on sustainability], and pluralism, with its myriad benefits, becomes inevitable. Thus, the recognition and implementation of the principles of sustainable development is a game-changer” (Reardon 2021, p. 294).

Pluralism, like sustainability (as well as democracy and freedom), is a complex and multifaceted concept. A simple working definition is the willingness to listen, participate and engage in dialogue with different and often opposing points of view. This is necessary because pandemics and climate change do not recognize established intellectual barriers and international boundaries. Working solutions are not the prerogative of one discipline, as if only one discipline has the answer.

Does pluralism mean that every issue should be studied by all possible schools of thought? And that every instructor must master every ideology? Absolutely not. On an individual level, pluralism is a modus operandi in which one humbly accepts what one does not know, works with others to understand their point of view, listens, and engages in dialogue with others. This is what every instructor can and should do; and it is probably the best thing with the most far-reaching benefits that a professor can instill in his students.

For even more credibility, invite guest lecturers from the fields of politics and sociology. While most social sciences are still focused on isolated learning and research, students (and society) will benefit the most from bringing our disciplines together—creating positive externalities, if you will.

3. Be realistic when discussing the social power and effectiveness of the model.

Speaking of strength, don’t ignore it. Students see it every day in their relationships with landlords/landladies, in summer jobs and internships, at their colleges and universities, and sometimes in their own families and relationships. Power in any economy is central and ubiquitous, and it must become an integral part of economic theory. To ignore it in your teaching is to lose the trust of your students. Jared Diamond’s Biggest Lesson collapse is that elites and vested interests everywhere used their power to obstruct and fend off needed reforms that would benefit everyone. What are the contexts in which power manifests itself in today’s economy, and how can the existence of power be portrayed, understood, and included in economics curricula? Here, both students and faculty can benefit from an active study of the history of economic thought. It not only demonstrates how well the economic thinkers were focused on the problems of their day, but also how different configurations of power either helped or hindered the acceptance of different ideas.

Use models that are realistic and based on experience. Every discipline uses models, but economics (especially neoclassical) is notorious for using models that are overly deductive and ahistorical or lack empirical validity. If we want to teach our students to think critically, we must, so to speak, roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty. Data, evidence, and discussions about how basic economics models contain outdated assumptions (but can be modified to incorporate new knowledge) will earn you credibility and teach your students to test everything. After all, that’s what they should be doing when they cross over to the real world.

4. Don’t be discouraged by the need to work on the system

Now wait a minute, you could say: I have accepted a permanent position and should teach standard economics; I will be evaluated by my colleagues, and our department will evaluate students. So what? Yes, we are all limited to work in the current system, but this does not give the right to do nothing. Teach our students to listen, communicate, and work with others—essential skills that are lacking not only in the economy, but throughout society. Isn’t that the essence of good teaching? Are we so used to the routine of teaching elementary things that we have forgotten what it means to be a good teacher? It doesn’t matter if the course is taken online or in person (although after two years of virtual learning, students are happy to be back in the classroom); learning is a unique and exciting opportunity. Working with students, getting to know them individually and teaching them to listen and engage in dialogue with others in a spirit of humility will spread and multiply in society.

Teaching economics is an honorable profession. We have an ethical obligation to educate our students and teach them how to think critically and how best to live and provide for themselves in an ever warmer world. Let’s do that.

The above article first appeared in the INOMICS Handbook 2022.

Download the INOMICS guide


Boyd, Graham & Reardon, Jack (2020) Rebuild the Economy, Leadership and Yourself: A Toolkit for the Builders of a Better World, Evolutesix, London.

Diamond, Jared (2005) How Societies Decide to Fail or Succeed, Penguin, New York.

Reardon, Jack (2021) “Improving Pluralism in Economics Education”, Hermann, Arturo and Muatt, Simon (eds.) Contemporary Issues in Heterodox Economics: Implications for Theory and Policy Action, Routledge: London, pp. 282-298.

Reardon, Jack, Madi, Maria and Cato, Molly Scott (2018) Introducing the New Economy: Pluralistic, Resilient and Progressive, Pluto Press, London.